Book Reviews

Shaping Life : Genes, Embryos and Evolution
by John Maynard Smith

Hardcover - 65 pages (October 1999)
Yale Univ Pr; ISBN: 0300080220 ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.42 x 7.33 x 4.81
Editorial Reviews
Review by William  A.  Spriggs,  January 7, 2001

On several occasions I have mentioned to friends how wonderful it must have been around ancient campfires where elders most likely passed knowledge one-one-one to the youth of their respective clans. That feeling is conveyed when reading this book by Maynard Smith, (he is now in his eighties) as he attempts to pass on some of his wisdom to those of us not of his clan, or in academia. And we can take advantage of his many years as a evolutionary biologists for about the same cost as a Saturday night movie. Is this a great time to be alive, or what?

Smith sees the rapid development of genetic engineering advancing along two fronts; the reductionist approach and the holistic. The reductionist approach, of course, is the breaking down into the smallest parts of the elements concerned and discovering how they operate. The holistic approach finds it's roots in Naturphilosophic by Johann Wolfgang von Goether (1749-1832), and suggests that, a sort of, "self-organization" does indeed exist in dynamic systems without the need for specific instructions. I suppose, we could also call these dynamic systems as "chaos" and the science that is forming around this banner. Smith observes these two advancing forces and calls for consilience in the developmental sciences. "In this book, I want to attempt two things: first, to explain the central ideas to a wider public in non-technical language, and second, perhaps to persuade a few people working in one school or the other to consider communication across the divide." p. 6.

Smith reminds us that changes that covert an egg into an adult take two parallel paths: the developmental changes and evolutionary changes: "Development depends on genetic information that has been accumulated over millions of years of evolution, and the evolution of adult forms has depended on developmental changes in successive generations." p.3.

Bringing us up to date on the latest information available is also Smith's goal here. He tells us that so far, research most likely has discovered that there is a common thread of "signaling" among all animals in the kingdom Animalia. In work done with the common fruit fly, Drosophila, and the lab mouse, scientists have found that the genes of the two animals are very similar in the sequence of their nucleotides and hence the proteins that they specify. What is astonishing is that the findings suggests that the signaling devices common to the two go back some six hundred million years, hence, further suggesting that their is a common thread amongst all animals -- including humans.

The concept that reductionists should consider the holistic approach in development science is explained in a simple, yet brilliant manner by Smith: Smith gives an example of his ink jet printer; from typing the sequence of "words" on his keyboard that pass instructions to his printer, which in turn, pass specific coded instructions within the printer to place the ink in its proper sequences on paper. All of this passing of codes and translating them into mechanisms that form the images are similar to genetic coding. But, behind the keyboard, the printer, and those ink images being printed on the paper from following detailed instructions, were his "ideas," that he wanted to convey, hence, suggesting that there is something bigger out there that we should consider. Is there a force driving nature to form patterns in a structured way? (for the latest on more of this holistic, or patterns from chaos news, see my notebook entry of Dec. 26, 2000).

In the final chapter, Reductionists to the Right, Holists to the Left, Smith muses about his past in London during the 1950s and flirts with politics, which in my opinion, is the highest form of human nature attempting to cooperate with each other: "But I am fairly confident that there is an association between holistic views about development and left-wing political opinions. The association is not just with left-wing opinions. Recently, reading Evelyn Fox Keller's Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death, I was fascinated to find a feminist critic of science equating the reductionist approach of molecular biology with the aid of male domination of 'nature', where 'nature' was thought to be female." p. 43

In concluding his book Smith once again calls on all scientists in either camp to be mindful and reflective of the other's opinions. But in any case, it is comforting to know that another one of our tribal elders is calling for a consilience of knowledge. And that is what makes a Renaissance.
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